The importance of microorganisms cannot be overemphasized. They greatly exceed every other group of organisms and, having been around longer than any other group, are the masters of survival in the biological world. They are found everywhere, from the coldest reaches of the antarctic (and perhaps on other planets) to the hottest geothermal vents in the deepest oceans.
In addition to being major contributors to the normal functioning of the entire biosphere, they are also the root causes of plagues and infections that have caused untold human misery. The adaptability of microorganisms seems almost limitless and their effects on the world are still being discovered by those active in researching them. In addition, they are just plain interesting creatures in their own right.
At Saint Mary’s there are different views of what microbiology should encompass. On one hand, is the classical view that is the study of any organism that cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope, with a strong emphasis on those organisms that are responsible for Human disease i.e. Medical Microbiology, and those that are essential to a normally functioning biosphere. Another view is that the study should be more limited to those groups presenting a unified defining characteristic based on cell structure i.e. not having internal membranes. These are the prokaryotes. In both cases, the study of viruses is an important part of the curriculum.
Microbiological research projects undertaken in recent years have involved the isolation of anti-microbial substances as natural products from marine sea urchins, the development of DNA probes that can be used to identify bacteria from natural sources and the intracellular symbioses of cyanobacteria living within microalgae which themselves live symbiotically within aggregating anemones. In addition, recent classroom projects have been undertaken, as a joint undertaking with upper division chemistry students, analyzing the membrane lipids of bacteria using GC mass spec, also for the purpose of identification.